American Ancestry and Identification Mapped

Ethnic map of US from the UK's Daily Mail

This map shows the predominant ancestry of every county in the country, based on data gathered in the 2000 US census.  As a measure of the prevalence and persistence of ancestral identification, the map is fascinating and surprising.

Many of us are invisible on this map: we are minorities within majorities.  In that sense, the map hides diversity rather than exposing it, but, even so, the level of diversity and homogeneity within the states is striking. Continue reading

Tracking the American

I’ve been in Boston, attending the opera premiere of a friend and museum-hopping.  The timing was good, because I was able to visit the newly reopened Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as well as the newish ‘Americas’ wing at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Interior view of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The American galleries at the MFA gave me a lot to ponder and even more to admire.  I’d been wanting to see them ever since reading this review by Holland Cotter.  The galleries themselves are sumptuous: beautifully colored,  . . .

Gallery in the Americas wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

. . . some even brocaded.

View of galleries in the MFA's new Americas wing

They showcase one of the world’s strongest collections of American art–some four stories of it–, which has been beautifully arranged and curated.

Red gallery in the Americas wing of the MFA

Wandering the galleries is like skimming the entire span of our history, from Puritans to Pollock, and back centuries more.  The extent and variety of the MFA’s holdings and the space now devoted to them avoids the conflation of eras so common to American exhibits in many museums.  One has the sense of proceeding through distinct periods of time, each with its own styles and cultural preoccupations.  The displays thoughtfully integrate a wide variety of objects–including architectural elements (such as house timbers), furnishings (such as Puritan dressers), and even ships’ models–which help to convey the openness and cosmopolitanism that have been part of the American aesthetic from an early time.

Much has been made of the way the Americas wing incorporates into its narrative artifacts from indigenous Latin and North American peoples.  Yet what surprised me was how quickly, in a chronological viewing of the galleries, the impression of cultural diversity slips away.  Once beyond the Revolutionary-era galleries, with their obligatory nod to rebellion, any hint of conflict or painful heterogeneity evaporates.  The story remaining is the triumphal cultural progress of upper-class New England, a class eagerly absorbing, modifying, and mirroring the cultural practices of continental Europe, England, and Asia.  Except for a few rooms of folk art, the lives of other Americans–whether black, red, or working-class white–are pretty much missing.

Museums have what their benefactors give them, so in that sense we can’t fault the Boston museum.  But I wondered whether its holdings were really so lacking in any material depicting the lives of ordinary people.  Many museums use smaller works on paper to round out grand canvases that skew social reality.  Boston, in the nineteenth century particularly, was a center of social reform, political radicalism, and industrial innovation, where experience was reflected not just in sculpture and painting but in such new media as lithography and photography.  Including more such works would have better represented the output of American artists and the totality of subjects that drew their concern.  Doing so could only enhance the appeal of the Americas wing.

Free Folk

A mountain fiddler circa 1920.A mountain fiddler circa 1920.
Courtesy New York Public Library via Flickr Commons.

I’ve been wanting to add a few links to my website in connection with my recent posts about protest and song.  Here’s a bit of what I’ve found.

  • The Smithsonian has long been a collector of American folk recordings.  In addition to making rare old recordings available through its Smithsonian Folkways label, it has made an extensive series of podcasts (24 hours’ worth) about its collections available for free download.  Permanent links to both are on my home page.
  • Turns out, last week was a big one for folk music, with the press reporting that an outfit called the Association for Cultural Equity was on the verge of releasing for free streaming some 17,000 recordings made by the late American folklorist Alan Lomax.  Lomax was a colorful figure who spent his life traveling around the US and the world with a tape-recorder and a camera, documenting the music of the ordinary from the 1930s through the 80s.  Some 170 of his videos are already available on the Alan Lomax channel on You Tube.  A tiny sampling of the sounds and performers can also be heard here and throughout the Cultural Equity website.
  • Finally, East Village Radio hosts a weekly radio program of American vernacular music called ‘Root Hog or Die,’ put together by Nathan Salsburg, one of the curators of the Lomax archives.  (An awful saying, but isn’t one of the things we like about folk music its frankness?)  A complete archive of the show is available for free.  Some of the show’s episodes are also available on SoundCloud, whose audio player you might find easier to work if you’re a Mac user like me.